John Eldridge reflects on the work of priestly hands
When Fr Ian first approached me a few weeks back and asked me to deliver this homily, it was quite a humbling and an unexpected honour. After I had accepted, he then of course told me it would be a mass of the Holy Trinity, the greatest mystery ever and I know clergy who go out of their way not to preach on this subject…
There is a story of St Augustine. One day he was walking on the beach contemplating the mystery of the Most Holy Trinity. Then he saw a young boy in front of him who had dug a hole in the sand and was going out to the sea again and again bringing some water to pour into the hole. St Augustine asked him, ‘What are you doing?’
‘I’m going to pour the entire ocean into this hole’ the young boy replied.
‘That is impossible, the whole ocean will not fit in the hole you have made’ said St Augustine. The boy looked at him and replied, ‘And you cannot fit the Trinity in your tiny little brain.’ At that point, the boy immediately vanished because St Augustine had been conversing with an angel.
The Most Holy Trinity, three persons but one God, is one of the central mysteries of our faith. Just as the angel taught St Augustine that he could never grasp the fullness of the mystery of the Most Holy Trinity, we know that we too will never fully grasp its reality. So then why do we attempt to even discuss that which we can never fully understand? We do so because it is a great mystery of love—a mystery which is central to the faith we all profess, and part of that love some of us witnessed yesterday at St Andrew’s, Tarring.
At his ordination yesterday, Fr Ian’s hands were anointed by Bishop Martin with sacred chrism. Since then, they have blessed a number of people, and they will bless many more following tonight’s Mass. As Fr Ian blesses us, some of you may be moved to kiss the palms of his hands.
Those hands have toiled in the fields of Canada where Fr Ian and his family have lived, and now those same hands have a special priestly duty. It is a beautiful catholic tradition to venerate the hands of a newly ordained priest.
For others, that’s a bit too much. On Good Friday, some people dislike—and even avoid—kissing the cross. Kissing Fr Ian’s hands is more confronting still. So why on earth do we do it? Because each one of us here will receive many graces from his anointed hands. Some of you will have children or grandchildren who will in the future be baptized by those hands of Fr Ian. Children who don’t even exist yet, but who are already known and loved by God. Some of you will have Fr Ian assist at your wedding or your children’s wedding and the nuptial blessing will be ministered by his hands. It’s also very likely that some of you sitting here will receive your final sacraments from these hands. Fr Ian’s are the hands which will administer the last rites and prepare your soul to meet God.
These are great privileges which will vary, according to our age and our own state of life. But saying this, there is one privilege that all of us, every single person in this church today, will share in common. In a short while, we will all witness these hands, for the first time, take up a piece of bread and change that bread into the sacred body of Christ. We will witness these hands, for the first time, grasp a chalice of wine and change that wine into the precious blood of Christ. This is the holiest and the greatest of the priest’s work and it is because he consecrates the body and blood of Christ that Fr Ian can teach, govern and sanctify.
Fr Ian, I want to say to you now, every sick call you ever make, every act of spiritual direction, every school classroom you will ever visit, every homily you deliver, will all flow from the altar of God. For all of us here, what a great privilege it is for us to see it start, tonight, at this very altar in St Symphorian’s. And we are the first to receive the benefits.
In today’s gospel John tells us that when the spirit of truth comes, he will lead us to the complete truth. This is part of the instruction to his disciples preparing them for his passion and resurrection. It was for his disciples, including you and me, that Jesus so willingly and insistently embraced the way of the cross. And it is precisely the same motivation which moves Fr Ian. In a short while, Fr Ian will represent the sacrifice of the cross, for you and for me, the Lord’s disciples. So why on earth wouldn’t we venerate his sacred hands tonight?
As of today, when Fr Ian celebrates Mass he will hold the Sacred Body of Jesus Christ in his hands. Mary, too, held the body of Christ in her hands. In Fr Ian’s case it is sacramental; in Our Lady’s case it was physical. She held her son with joy at Bethlehem, and she held his body with unspeakable sorrow at Calvary. Today Fr Ian, it is a bit like your Bethlehem. But your priesthood will surely lead you to Calvary also. So, let us pray that Our Lady will make her presence known, and extend her maternal care, in your joys and in your sorrows. Let’s ask our Blessed Mother to pray for Fr Ian. Our Lady has a special love for priests, who share a unique claim with her.
‘Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of death. Amen.’
Fr John Eldridge SSC is vicar of St Barnabas, Hove (and formerly vicar of St John the Divine, West Worthing). This homily was preached at Fr Ian Edgar’s first mass at St Symphorian’s, Durrington on Trinity Sunday 2019.